Thursday, 12 July 2012

Making Agile Go Fast

Just recently I was speaking with a potential customer who had concerns about the velocity of their Scrum teams. They had recently (9 months ago) switched to an agile approach and had expected to get much more delivered than they had.

Now they were looking in to scaling up the number of Scrum teams on the project to try and increase velocity and deliver more quickly. In my experience of many agile projects, increasing the number of people on the project, especially one that is struggling, never has the desired effect of making things go faster. The advice to this customer was to therefore look at making their existing teams and process more effective rather than increasing the number of people on the project.

This got me thinking about what makes agile projects go slow. Across a number of projects that I have experienced, I’ve identified four common traits: two related to people and process and two related to technical concerns.

The Wrong People

Agile is all about using the right people. In fact this is true for any project or process, but for agile it is even more important. Use the right people and the agile process will work. Use the wrong ones and you will struggle.

The people who you don’t want on your agile project are those who are not disciplined enough to follow sound engineering practices and those who try to build complex frameworks/toolkits and who conduct personal science projects on your codebase. If you want to go fast then it’s vital that you have a clean, simple and well-refactored codebase that is backed up by a set of quality tests. Team members who don’t support this vision slow down the whole team.

To get back on track, remove those devs who aren’t following good engineering discipline and those who keep making things more complex. Bring in experienced agile developers to pair with the remaining team, giving them the responsibility of ensuring quality engineering practices are followed.

Putting The Process First

Another common mistake of companies starting out with agile projects is that they assume the process will make them go faster. Sorry to disappoint, but this is just not true. What makes agile teams go fast is creating open channels of communication and self organising and empowered teams.

If an organisation can’t create an excellent environment for communicating then no agile process will help. Agile helps teams go faster by eliminating the unnecessary documentation and waterfall steps. However, this information transfer must still happen and it happens through closer communication and collaboration.

Sadly, many organisations create agile teams and give them a process to follow but then insist on telling them how to organise, what tools and techniques to use, how to work and exactly what to do. This isn’t agile, it’s just another way of organising a traditional team. If you want agile to go fast then the team need total control over how they work and what they do.

To get back on track from here, relax on the process. Work on increasing communications. Give the agile teams the chance to decide how they will organise and work. Give them control and they will go faster. Agile is not a process, it’s about letting people get the job done.

Using The Wrong Technologies

So many agile projects struggle because they are using the wrong technologies. When this is the case it’s usually because the technology approach has been foisted on the team by an ‘ivory-tower’ architect or some senior manager who was wooed by the sales consultant from a large vendor. In other cases it may be that the team are forced into using a ‘corporate standard’ technology set.

In many cases the team will repeatedly identify the technology as a major factor in retrospectives. However, more often than not they will be told that this is not something that can be changed and that they have to stick with it. Why throw away hundreds of thousands or even millions on staff costs when backtracking on some poor technology choices would make so much difference.

Again, giving the teams the authority to make technology decisions is essential. Allowing technology choices to be reversed if they prove to be hindering delivery is also an important part of being agile.

Making The Architecture Too Complex

Many software systems are designed, or become, far too complex. In an agile environment this is a guaranteed way of making things go slower. Software must be kept as simple as possible so that it is easy to continually change and enhance.

If the architecture of an agile system has become so complex that it hinders development then it must be revisited and greatly simplified. Layers must be removed, interfaces reduced and code and technologies radically refactored to make everything simpler. Once that is done then the project must work all out on stopping it from getting more complex again in the future.

Only by using the right people, correctly empowered and communicating can the team have the ability to go fast and be truly agile. Only by making the correct technology choices, reversing bad technology choices and keeping everything simple can the ability to turned into real agile delivery.

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